Stone age politics, meet advanced technology. Oh, you’ve met before? A hundred years ago? I see. And how did that go? Great.The world is more terrifying than ever, especially to fiction writers – a particularly wimpy bunch. You could argue that Hemingway and Orwell were exceptions to the rule but it’s doubtful either would have lasted long in a Game of Thrones-type landscape. Journalists are far braver, of course; an increasing number of them giving their lives for diminishing returns in the post-truth age. Something else that contrasts the better ones with fictionheads is an impartiality when it comes to politics. Yet just as fiction writers may soon be forced to learn how to dig bomb shelters and fight hand-to-hand, so journalists are having to show their colours less discretely – especially when their freedom to report is threatened.While I’m running a course in urban sniping for short story writers next week at Fringe, PEN Hong Kong’s less melodramatic reaction to recent events is to set out a mandate of reasonable measures they can use to help protect the written word in the city. They are open to ideas, but for now these include collecting and analysing media data, maintaining a watch list, and going into schools to promote literature and freedom of expression.The impressive panel unveiled at its launch on 13 November 2016 is led by Jason K. Ng, a roving, pen-wielding presence in today’s Hong Kong, and an important contributor to the forthcoming anthology Hong Kong Future Perfect. Author Mishi Saran kicks things off, saying it’s time for writers to take a stand. In a world where ‘the thugs are emboldened’, she explains, ‘I can’t just sit in my room fiddling with sentences’. Saran quotes a holocaust survivor who insists, ‘you must always take sides’, and James Baldwin who told us, ‘you have to tell the world how you want to be treated’. It’s likely that many in the audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club are wrestling with the same demons, but I suspect it’s the genuineness of Saran’s delivery as much as empathy with her situation that leads to the prolonged applause after her words.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, co-founder of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and an emerging academic, took things from high principles to grim facts as she related a personal story of self-censorship. An allegorical tale for the 2010s, it began with her reposting a captioned Facebook photo of a professor who refused to award a degree to a student who had taken a yellow umbrella on stage at his graduation ceremony. A colleague, believing she had Ho’s best interests at heart, advised her to remove the post, suspecting its lingering presence might preclude her friend from a university job extension. Ho refused to accept the idea that you ‘shouldn’t be too political in Hong Kong academia’; in fact, she believes having such conversations openly is the only way to escape a climate of paranoia and fear.Bao Pu, founder of New Century Press, picked up where he left off at the PEN America talk a week earlier (second from right above – with reappeared bookseller Lam Wing-kee, second from left). For Bao, Hong Kong’s role as a publishing safe house – where memoirs and histories can be freely written and published – provides a vital mirror to modern China. Noting that these publications are in decline, he nevertheless finds hope in recent legal victories when it comes to cross-border book seizures; the mainland’s banned book list not only needs constant updating, but its secrecy means it’s very hard to defend confiscations legally.
Ilaria Maria Zucchina has been covering Hong Kong news since the ‘90s. Like Saran, she now feels compelled to speak out, in her case having witnessed the increasing restrictions placed on journalists in Hong Kong today. No longer can she get ready access to government officials – ‘we’ll get back to you’ translates into missed deadlines, something unaffordable in the Internet age. Perhaps most surprising to me is hearing that reporters from Internet news providers such as Hong Kong Free Press are refused press cards and entry into government press conferences because they operate outside the traditional print media. Whether this is a failure to keep up with the times or something more deliberate isn’t clear, but it does Hong Kong no favours as it attempts to debate its future in a sensible way.
The event concludes to more determined applause. Not so much a call to arms as a firm and friendly reminder that writers and journalists have a responsibility to themselves and others not to turn the other cheek, and to continue to do what they do, only more so, when times are dark.